Hudson Brown takes a look into the resurgence of the original photography dens.
Texts by Hudson Brown
Darkrooms have always been recognised as having endless photographic possibilities. To many photographers, these crimson-lit rooms are revered as a gloomy place of creative magic as photos materialise their way onto the page. Yet as everyone is well aware of by now, in just a few short years the onset of digital photography killed off film and didn’t stop to look back as most darkrooms and an array of once booming businesses shut their doors. The slow and methodical nature of darkrooms hardly stood a chance once the future arrived.
The demise of many of the photographic industry’s giants remains painfully fresh for enthusiasts and professionals alike. While some companies managed to adapt and survive, many foolishly dug their heels in as their clientele faded away. Yet barely six years after this collapse, the likes of Kodak and many of their contemporaries are back and on the rise. Today’s sales might not be anywhere close to the 960 million rolls of film sold at the analog industry’s peak in 2003, but brands such as Ilford and Fujifilm are now seeing an annual growth of 5% and trending upwards. And with the renewed popularity of film, new labs and darkrooms have responded to the needs of the once again thriving analog community. It doesn’t seem so long ago that darkrooms vanished from our cities, but as quickly as they went, many have returned and are finding enough customers to keep them safely in business.
One example is Work In Process, a Melbourne-based darkroom and film lab opened in mid-2018 by lifelong analog-lover Brock Saddler. An accomplished photographer and darkroom-obsessive, Saddler saw an opportunity to pass on his in-depth knowledge of darkroom processing. “I originally learnt about darkrooms at school. But ever since then, it’s been something that I’ve always taken with me wherever I’ve gone,” says Saddler. “I always try to set up a darkroom wherever I’m living and then print whatever I shoot.”
For the most recent generations of photographers, the darkroom is largely a foreign concept. Since digital became the standard, high schools and universities have downsized or gotten rid of their darkrooms entirely as they became seen as obsolete. But forward-thinking academic institutions picked up on film photography’s resurgence, deciding to make space for new darkrooms and teach updated classes on film photography and its significance to the broader practice of photography as a whole. Similarly, Saddler is hoping to help beginners familiarise themselves with darkroom processing as he educates budding analog photographers on its appeal.
“The growing popularity of film has shown that it’s an accessible and exciting medium that offers more than just simply capitalising on nostalgia.”
“[Darkrooms] are pretty much completely new to younger people who have grown up without anything like it,” explains Saddler. “Here, I’ve been able to share my knowledge of darkroom processing – many photographers really love the tangible nature of it.”
Having arrived in Melbourne from Brisbane four years ago and working in local photo labs, Saddler was blown away by film photography’s rapid resurgence. “It was really interesting to see how fast film was growing then. Every month we were beating the previous’ goals for developing film– it really came up fast,” describes Saddler.
Certainly, digital photography isn’t going anywhere. However, the growing popularity of film has shown that it’s an accessible and exciting medium that offers more than just simply capitalising on nostalgia. Saddler believes that getting the next generation of photographers excited to work in the darkroom is a big challenge, but one that’s imperative to keeping the art of darkroom processing alive. Smartly, Work In Process is located within close proximity to its customer base in the trendy suburb of Northcote – an area that’s home to many young artists and creative types. Inside Work In Process’ bright and airy space, Saddler proudly displays the inner workings of the photo lab as his assortment of processing equipment piques the curiosity of many visitors.
“The way I’ve got the lab set out is completely open, so all the darkroom enlargers are on show all the time,” describes Saddler. “People come in and see them and ask what it’s all about. When I show off a few prints, people really love the look and want to have a go at processing in the darkroom themselves.”
In addition to Work In Process, there are several other darkrooms in the surrounding area that have found stable success within the last five years. While film photography and darkrooms won’t likely re-establish themselves as the dominant photographic format, they might just safely make their way into the future as people continue to discover the format’s thoughtful nature and immediately palpable results. Darkroom devotees like Saddler are working hard to make sure that becomes a reality.
“I learnt a lot from working in the darkroom myself, and it’s one of those practices that if no one thinks to uphold then it could be lost forever,” says Saddler. “I’m trying to keep that alive. It’s a great skill and it’s fun – I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who will feel the same.”